5 Steps to Get a Product Marketing Job at a Startup
June 12, 2014

5 Steps to Get a Product Marketing Job at a Startup

by Brian de Haaff

I keep finding myself telling people that marketing has profoundly changed. In the last few days, I have told the same story at a fundraiser to an attorney, at a soccer game to a stay-at-home mom, and to our babysitter. It could be that it is top-of-mind because we have actively been recruiting for someone to lead our marketing team. Regardless, I thought I would take a minute to share my thoughts on why marketing has radically changed and suggest what actions you now need to take to grow the right skills to land a marketing gig at a startup.

I also recognize that not everyone is interested in startups. That is ok. I think this is broadly relevant to all marketers because startups are often at the vanguard of innovation — so you probably want to master these skills for any marketing job.

Let me start by sharing some context. This is how I have been describing the type of person we are looking for. Now, this is for our company Aha!, which is changing how product and engineering teams set strategy and create visual roadmaps.

We are growing fast and looking for a superstar Director of Marketing who is crafty in the old ways of product marketing and demand generation and at the vanguard of the new social/content/community-driven world.

Ultimately, we are looking for someone who wants to help change how teams build software. That is a tough person to find and we know it.

And it might be an impossible find as the tactics used for building a brand and conversing with potential customers is shifting underneath us. Combine our social connectedness with the demise of journalism and you have a new world order. The challenge is further exacerbated because big companies drive specialization and are structured to keep people from changing roles and acquiring new skills — often the skills that are needed to keep up.

In a big company, if you are in a marketing manager role, you are the events person, Google adwords guru, or email czar. Unfortunately, you are an island of expertise.

When your skills are only discussed once a year in an annual talent review — it sure is hard to find your way out of what you already know and what worked in the past. The good news is that you can retool no matter what company you are in and what work you are doing. It is not too late to grow social, content, and community chops.

Here is what you need to do to expand your marketing prowess and round out your skill set — and it is especially important if you want to be hired for a marketing role at a startup.

Know the product You hate using crappy products, right? They really annoy you. And you probably notice them every day and can easily explain how much better they would be if this bug was fixed, this feature was added, or this improvement was made. The reason it is so obvious is because you are perceptive and you use the product yourself. Here is my challenge to you. Use the product from the company or companies that you are interested in. Sign up for a trial and use the product. If you want to join a startup and market the product, you need to use it to understand it and speak intelligently about it.

Speak with the customer It is not always possible to use the product. You might be looking to join a big data healthcare analytics company. So, while it is critical for every marketing person to speak with customers, it is even more important if you can not try the product. But most marketing people never speak with customers. Considering how connected we all are, with a little effort, you should be able to find a prospect or customer to talk with. And remember that the perfect customer meeting is one where you get to emotion. What is really vexing the customer that the product can help solve? Learn to ask probing questions and leave lots of silence, because people speak from their soul when they are trying to fill an awkward void.

Get social In a startup, every person’s network matters to generate awareness, attract customers, and recruit employees. Startups want marketing folks who are uber externally-focused and connected. Whether you are looking for a job or not, start getting more social today. I suggest that you continue to make incremental investments in networking and personal thought leadership activities every day. It will benefit you in the long run by exposing you to more opportunities and it increases your worth to prospective companies.

Generate content Company and employee-generated content is the new way to be heard and equalizes the playing field for startups with limited funds. You need to write and keep writing. Just within LinkedIn, you can comment on this post, contribute to a group discussion, and update your own status with a unique point of view. Start writing and keep at it. Even if you are not an authorized published at your company — engage on Twitter and LinkedIn and Quora. Everyone’s views are their own — so start writing.

Build confidence One of the best aspects of working for a startup is that you will have ample opportunity to wear many hats. You need to be ok with that and have confidence that you can solve new challenges that you have not previously faced. Build confidence by studying the markets, customers, and competitors that are fundamental to the company you are pursuing. By immersing yourself in a business (even as an outsider) it’s possible to gain insights and perspective that allow you to speak humbly with conviction about what you see happening. You will not be an expert overnight but can build a mental framework to help you handle uncertainty.

A monumental shift in marketing is upon us and it is now up to you to respond if you want to grow and add new skills. Take the actions above to get started. These are critical steps for every type of marketer but have become required to land a role in a growing startup.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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